by Milo James Fowler
The original Star Wars trilogy, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, even comedies like Galaxy Quest and Guardians of the Galaxy are all examples of space opera, which, according to Merriam Webster, is “a futuristic melodramatic fantasy involving space travelers and extraterrestrial beings.”
Notice how it’s not referred to as science fiction? Probably because there isn’t a whole lot of actual science in this fiction. According to the Urban Dictionary: “Generally speaking, [space opera] refers to an epic adventure in space that focuses less on the technical details and more on good vs. evil and action.”
That’s fine by me. Sure, I enjoy cerebral sci-fi too, but there’s just something about the swashbuckling bravado of space opera that makes me feel like a kid again. (Cue Star Wars theme.) Which is probably why I’ve written so many tales featuring Captain Bartholomew Quasar and company. I can’t get enough of this stuff, so I have to write it myself!
But not all space opera is science-free. One has only to look as far as Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series to see hard science coupled with the intergalactic trappings of classic spacefaring adventure stories. The Expanse series of novels by James S. A. Corey, while mainly character-oriented, includes plenty of real science in the fiction, as do the occasional space opera tales published by Analog every month. I find them just as enjoyable—maybe even more so, than the hard science stories. And while reading this variety of science fiction, I can’t help but feel like I’m being educated (or re-educated) in the process.
In the latest issue of Analog, James Gunn delineates what he perceives to be the difference between print science fiction and the variety we see on the screen. In many ways, the contrast is the same as that between space opera and traditional science fiction. Screen sci-fi (and space opera) is often about big ideas, character arcs, and genre tropes, while print sci-fi (hard science fiction) echoes more from the cutting edge science itself. Some critics have said that space opera stories could easily be recast as westerns if you took away the ships, lasers, aliens, and bounty hunters and replaced them with horses, pistols, natives, and banditos. The science just isn’t as integral to the plot.
Regardless, science fiction in all its forms looks at what’s ahead for humanity. Space opera in particular is often optimistic, for the most part. The Expanse and the latest incarnation of Star Trek can be dark at times, but there are still those characters we can get behind and root for. Sure, we’ll still have our struggles getting along with each other out in the deep black, but there will always be heroes to lead the way: kick-ass men and women like Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Washburne from Firefly. And between you and me, those are the sort of folks I wouldn’t mind hanging out with.
Because I’m a big fan of space opera—as long as we’re not talking about anything operatic—and I’m proud to say it’s here to stay.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. Over the past 5 years, his short fiction has appeared in more than 100 publications including AE SciFi, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and the Wastelands 2 anthology. Find his novels, novellas, and short story collections wherever books are sold.